Dumbo, or Fear of the Big D

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The new version of Dumbo, based on the 1941 animated classic, is an anti-capitalist story. In this live action update, director Tim Burton presents Dumbo -the flying elephant!- as a uniquely talented creature, one that boosts the ticket sales at a crumbling circus and ends up attracting the attention of V. A. Vandevere (Michale Keaton), the biggest entertainment magnate in the country. Vandevere, believe it or not, turns out to be evil. In order to get Dumbo into his fold, he buys the raggedy old circus, not caring about all the circus workers who will lose their jobs in the process. Even worse, he doesn’t care about Dumbo reuniting with his long-lost mother (she’s an inconvenience he’d rather shoot dead). But this being a children’s movie, the ragtag group of now unemployed circus performers (led by Colin Farrell) comes up with a plan to get Dumbo and his mom reunited, and give Vandevere a taste of his own medicine.

How ridiculous is it for a company like Disney to make such a movie? Disney, a company that last week finalized its purchase of 20th Century Fox -one of the “big six” Hollywood studios- creating massive layoffs as it inches slowly into total domination of the entertainment industry. Isn’t this some sort of deep hypocrisy- a giant corporation warning us about the dangers of giant corporations? Vandevere, who owns an amusement park called Dreamland full with massive parades and a “world of tomorrow” exhibit, couldn’t be a more obvious parallel for uncle Walt himself. How can this be a coincidence? Is this some sort of sick joke? In the time of Late Capitalism, Disney is here to sell our ideals back to us, as long as investors get rich. And we’re buying it. It’s hard not to when the same company owns Pixar, Marvel, Star Wars, ESPN, the Muppets, Avatar, Titanic, The Simpsons, Disneyland, ABC, FX, and holds a majority stake in Hulu. How could you possibly escape that? 

Who is Dumbo in this analogy? The cute little elephant could be standing for an artist like Tim Burton, who has had his talent and originality drained by the franchise machine (and in no small part by Disney, who makes millions off of Nightmare Before Christmas merchandise). Although at this point in the game, he might as well be standing for any talented young person trying to break into a creative field. Directors, writers, actors spend years trying to get a low budget off the ground, and if that movie breaks through in any noticeable way, the reward is being hired by a big corporation to write/star/direct their latest franchise entry. Independent voices such as Ryan Coogler, Chloe Zhao, Alex Ross Perry, even Argentinian arthouse staple Lucrecia Martel have gone through this process in one way or another. Is Disney’s plan to soak every talented person into its orbit? Is the ability to spend as much money as they can to attract talent what will allow to build a monopoly on culture. Here’s a once ridiculous question that now seems only appropriate: What would pop culture look like in a world where everybody works for Disney?

What makes this real life scenario different from the movie is that there is no ragtag group of circus performers that can save us. There is no Colin Farrell here to lead the charge. How could there be, when we don’t have to take on one bad individual, but an enormous conglomerate who nobody can escape. Because nobody can resits Disney. Not the artist who is presented with a massive, once-in-a-lifetime paycheck. Not the children who are advertised to from the minute they are born. Not the adults who grew up with Disney movies and have a visceral reaction when they hear the opening notes of “You’ve Got a Friend in Me”, or “Circle of Life”, or the Star Wars theme. How do you fight that?

That’s the question I’ve been asking myself for a while. Earlier this year I took inspiration from Alternate Ending editor Tim Brayton and decided that, like him, I will no longer go to see any Disney movie on its opening weekend. But what will that measly moral stance do other than make me feel a little better about my choices? Why does cutting Disney from my media diet feel as if I was becoming a Vegan (something I would never do)? How has a company been so effective at commodifying our pleasure, at owning our childhood, at selling it back to us? Why, if I understand that Dumbo’s anti-capitalist message is absolutely hollow, do I still find the little elephant so damn cute? Why do I get excited when I hear “Casey Junior” and “Baby Mine” on the soundtrack?

I have come to the conclusion that there is nothing to do. I will continue with my “no opening weekend” rule, but Disney cannot be stopped. I do not know what a world in which culture is monopolized by one company will look like, but I am now convinced we’ll find out sooner rather than later.

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Things I Thought About While Watching ‘Moana’

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It’s hard to think about anything else but the glum future of the United States of America after the total clusterfuck that was this election. I do understand that every movie that gets released for the next four years will be analyzed in terms of “what it says about Trump’s America”, and I do expect such analyses to get really old really quickly. But there is something fascinating about the deep sense of bittersweetness I experienced while watching Moana, Walt Disney Animation’s latest production. It’s a movie designed as an empowering tool for little girls everywhere that has inadvertently become a lament for all that could have been, and all that we progressive and liberal people fear will be lost in the face of this terrible election.

First of all, the movie takes place in a mythological version of the South Pacific. A beautiful region of the world that looks legitimately gorgeous in the movie. People who read this blog know I am not the biggest fan of computer generated animation, but this movie looks beautiful (which is a big plus when compared to Disney movies as recent as Frozen, which is a movie I really like, but quite frankly doesn’t look very good). It is, at the same time, particularly heartbreaking to look at all this Pacific Island beauty and realize that the real-life equivalent (which is equally if not even more breathtakingly gorgeous) faces a very real danger of being swallowed up by rising ocean levels as a result of human-influenced climate change. Thank God the U.S. just elected a President who doesn’t believe such a threat exists.

Seeing young Moana go on an epic quest to reverse the curse that is destroying her island paradise made me think of the hundreds of South Pacific people who blocked an Australian port to protest rising tides. The young heroine’s quest gained a level of sorrow in my mind as soon as I saw the beauty of the environment the animators created, and it only grew bigger as the movie developed its themes. See, the basic idea of the movie is that Moana’s people used to be travelers who explored the sea looking for new islands in which to settle. As the movie opens, Moana’s tribe has grown afraid of the dangers of the sea and they’ve closed off of all sorts of exploration. They have turned inward and forgotten that they used to be, essentially, immigrants. Sounds like any particular group of people to you?

Not to get too political, but the more I think about the movie, the more parallels I find to current events. There is, of course, the fact that Moana is groomed from the day she is born to become a rightful and trusted leader for her people, and that she fights long and hard to do what is best for them while challenging the views of her relatively close-minded father. Moana is fueled by responsibility, her father by fear. Of course, Moana triumphs at the end, unlike another woman leader who worked her whole life in public office and tried to become a great leader but was defeated by an experienced old man who largely fueled his supporters with fear. Listen, you might think I’m exaggerating with these parallels, but a key line repeated in the movie insists Moana remember “who she really is”, which made me immediately think of the phrase “this is not who we are”, which so many people used in order to fight against the xenophobic and divisive views that bubbles up during this election season.

I will stop with the parallels now. All I’m trying to say is that it was quite difficult for me to enjoy Moana for what it was and take the current political situation out of my brain. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Sure, it made have tinged my viewing experience in a way I wasn’t prepared for, but at the same time, it made me think of the young girls who will watch Moana and find in the central character a source of motivation. To also work hard to be the best person they can be, to become leaders, and to be ready to go in long and hard personal journeys in order to do what is best for the people that they love and the land they share with them.

While we’re on the topic, Moana herself strikes me as a particularly strong protagonist worth of serious unmitigated praise. It is yet another revisionist attempt on Disney’s part to fight against the more regressive aspects of their whole “Princess” brand (Moana even says “I’m not a princess” at some point in the movie), but one that really works. Two key factors help this point tremendously. First, Moana is a smart girl, who like I’ve said a hundred times now, works hard for what she wants to accomplish. Second, her quest is not a selfish one. I love The Little Mermaid (which was directed by Ron Clements and John Musker, the team behind Moana), but Ariel’s quest is essentially a selfish one. It’s about doing things for herself and to make herself feel good. That’s a valid quest in itself, but I find it particularly endearing that Moana is doing something not necessarily for herself (there is an element of self-fulfillment of course because this is a Hollywood film after all), but to provide a better future for her people and become a righteous leader.

All of this is accomplished without giving her a love interest or defaulting to a stronger male character. Yes, there is Maui (the demigod voiced wonderfully by Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson), who becomes an escort and sort of mentor for the girl, but by the end of the movie Moana and Maui are equals, stronger when they work together than when they are apart, and it’s Moana who drives the plot and must convince Maui to keep going when it seems like all is lost.

In terms of the movie itself, not everything is as tightly plotted and carefully executed as say, Tangled, which remains the best of the recent string of computer animated Disney movies. The songs (co-written by most popular person in the world and awards-magnet Lin-Manuel Miranda) are mostly just ok. “How Far I’ll Go” is the standout, and probably the best “I Want” song Disney has put on film since “Part of That World”. But then you have Jemaine Clement giving a hilarious voice performance as a giant crab who is saddled with a nothing of a song when hearing his clever line readings would’ve been more rewarding. The other songs are merely ok.

That being said Moana is still a really good movie, and one that I would be completely happy to see little girls all around the world obsess over. This “not a princess” could prove to be a great role model. Here’s hoping she inspires a generation of future leaders.

Grade: 8 out of 10

 

‘Zootopia’ and Disney Progressivism Then and Now

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Before we get into this review, let me do a brief recount of Disney’s history with social progress. We have this picture of Walt Disney, and the Disney corporation as a whole, as very conservative-valued (let’s be clear: I’m talking about Conservatism as a broad political and social philosophy, and not in its America a.k.a. “Republican” version). And with good reason. Movies like Mary Poppins and Cinderella have deeply conservative undertones. For most of its history, the company has tried to play it safe, and has done everything it can to maximize profits by not offending sensibilities. But Disney’s history as a conservative conglomerate may have as much to do with the politics of the man himself as it does with the history of what has happened when Disney has tried to be Progressive.

In 1946, Disney released Song of the South, feature-length movie adaptation of the Uncle Remus stories. The film, which depicts the relationship between a young white boy and an old storytelling ex-slave (Uncle Remus) in the Reconstruction South was meant as a fable about story-telling and acceptance, but while it was a box office success, it was also quite controversial. The NAACP pronounced itself against the film, calling it racist; and though it played U.S. theaters as recently as 1986, the backlash against the film is so big it has never been released in home video, and it’s practically impossible to find a copy these days without ordering from white supremacist website.

Now, I’m not here to discuss the racism in Song of the South (if you want to read a great article about that topic, I recommend this piece by Odie Henderson), but to observe how the backlash to Disney’s early (and misguided) attempts at a Progressive message might have soured him on the idea of making race and other Social Problems a factor in his movies. This adherence to Old-Fashioned values is perhaps part of why Disney’s studio nose-dived in popularity in the seventies and eighties (that, and the death of Walt himself, which undoubtedly played a major factor).

Curiously enough, Disney regained its footing in the nineties, by embracing an old musical aesthetic and marrying to more modern concerns. The studio had its first attempt at a feminist heroine in Beauty and the Beast, and started setting its movies in different cultures. Disney’s big attempt at Progressivism in the nineties came with Pocahontasa beautiful-looking movie, that misguidedly attempts to turn the arrival of Europeans to the Americans into a love story, casually (but perhaps not intentionally) neglecting the tragic nature of the effects this encounter had on Native American history.

Similarly, the last movie I would describe as a transparent attempt at delving into the Progressive well by Disney would be The Princess and the Froganother beautiful-looking whose problematic elements made headlines even before it was released. People protested when they found out Disney’s first-ever African American Princess was actually going to be a maid, and so Tiana was changed into a working class waitress with a dream of opening a restaurant of her own. Even in its finished version, The Princess and the Frog elicited complaints that the titular Princess wasn’t really a princess, and that she spent most of the movie’s running-time as a frog. Both problems of depiction when you are talking about the first and basically only black protagonist in a Disney Animation’s history.

This is all to say that Disney just can’t get it right. And even though they have themselves to blame, I also wouldn’t begrudge them if they didn’t want to attempt any other Progressive idea in the future. After all, it only seems to bring them trouble.

Now, let us talk about Zootopia. Because for all intents and purposes, this is Disney’s most effective and transparent (in a way) attempt at tackling the issue of Race Relations in America. And even then, the message has problems of its own.

The issue of transparency is interesting, because not only did Disney decide to take humans out of the equation altogether and make this a race parable told through funny talking animals, but because the lack of human characters afforded them the luxury to not have to advertise the fact that this was a movie about race. Disney’s sneaky strategy of not revealing their movie’s themes has payed off recently. Don’t you remember how the marketing materials for Frozen -Disney’s biggest hit ever- didn’t let anyone know this was a movie about sisterhood until they actually saw the film?

Anyway, Zootopia takes place in a fantasy world populated by talking animals. Our protagonist is a bunny by the name of Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin). Ever since she was a child, Judy wanted to be a police officer in the big city of Zootopia, and thanks to the “Mammals Inclusion Program” (this world’s version of Affirmative Action), she gets to be the first ever bunny cop in the force. But Judy is undermined by her colleagues for being a girl and a rabbit. The plot kicks into gear when Judy decides to prove her worth, and takes on a case that ends up unraveling a major conspiracy that involves fourteen missing animals.

The interesting thing about the conspiracy is that all the missing animals are predators. You see, in the world of Zootopia, there is a clear distinction between Predators and Prey, and this is where the race allegory comes into play. Predators represent only 10% of this world’s population, and Prey have a long list of preconceptions about what kind of people Predators are. After all, there used to be a time -millennia ago- when Predators would hunt and eat Prey. As a young bunny, Judy had a violent encounter with a bully Fox. “It’s the kind of behavior you’d expect from a Fox” say her Parents. “He only happened to be a Fox” says Judy. Midway through her adventure, Judy teams up with sly trickster Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman), who also happens to be a Fox.  Because this is a kids’ movie I don’t need to tell you that Judy and Nick learn to accept and respect each other by the end of the movie. And thus, we practically come full circle from the days of Song of the South, when Br’er Rabbit and Br’er Fox were enemies to a movie were rabbit and fox live together in harmony.

But let’s look deeper into Zootopia’s allegory. There’s a lot to unpack here. The first thing that jumped at me is the movie’s decision to make Predators the minority species and Prey the hegemony (relatively speaking). If you wanted to create a reflection of America’s own history with race relations, I think it would be more appropriate for the Prey to be the historically minoritized group, and Predators into the oppressors who must struggle with their ancestor’s behavior and history.

The way in which Zootopia uses Predators to represent the minoritized group is interesting in that the Prey citizens of Zootopia have a deep fear of the Predators “going savage”, by which they mean them reverting to their ancestral stage, back when they would’ve violently hunted 90% of the population. This idea taps quite effectively into white America’s fears of what would happen when minorities are empowered, but it also uses the very loaded term “savage”, and doesn’t come unscathed. The sometimes brash, but always insightful film critic Devin Faraci wrote about this particular problem in his review of Zootopia, and explains why the idea of making Predators the metaphorical equivalent for black people is fundamentally flawed. Here’s a particularly good quote:

“At one point Judy Hopps talks about how predators are biologically given to violent behavior, and it’s really offensive to her predator friends but get this – she’s right. In the context of the allegorical world being built she is 100% correct. In the past predators did kill other animals as part of their biological imperative. They do come from a heritage of violence and savagery. Despite the film’s attempt to make the appeal to biology look wrong, its allegorical base affirms the most racist assumptions about black people – they come from savagery.”

This contradiction in Zootopia‘s analogy stuck in the back of my mind for most of the movie. Although I have to say that the movie very deliberately introduces a third-act reveal that makes clear what the filmmakers were going for with the whole “going savage” bit, and how it plays into their message about tolerance and acceptance. Without going into spoilers and such, let’s just say that they make it clear that the citizen of Zootopia’s worry that Predators will “go savage” is misguided. That being said, and going back to Faraci’s point, there is a historical reason within the movie why one could consider that Predators devolving into their primal nature could be a legitimate problem.

That’s why I think the movie might have worked better if the roles were flipped. When we compare the movie to our own world -and please don’t be all “why do you have to bring real-life politics and history into a movie about talking animals”, because the movie very clearly wants to engage in such a conversation through its themes- we see that the history of white people in America (as slave-owners, and accomplices of a racist society) fits better with the Predators’ history. On the other hand, the filmmakers have a clear interest in representing white people’s fears and perceptions of blacks and other minorities as “dangerous”, and I don’t know how that would work if the metaphor was flipped. But now we’re getting into speculation of what the movie should and should’ve done and we’ve stopped talking about the movie itself.

And there’s a reason for that. The weird thing about Zootopia is that its central racial metaphor, despite its fundamental problems, is the movie’s biggest strength and most commendable aspect. A late second act development, for example, depicts a moment of mass hysteria and exploitation of racial (or inter-species) tension by the media. The animals of Zootopia give over to a kind of mob-mentality that until Donal Trump’s recent rise to political success could have only been expected from the citizens of Springfield. There is a certain boldness in what this movie for kids released by Disney wants to tackle that is nothing but commendable.

The sad part of this situation is that outside of the metaphor, Zootopia is merely an ok movie. It’s got a solid mystery at its center, and a bunch of funny jokes, but that’s it. A couple years ago, Tangled and Frozen promised a new Golden Age for Disney Animation, but the studio -as it usually does when it finds success- seems to have settled into a predictable formula. It took them a long time, but Disney has settled into the business of Computer-Generated Animation, and has found refuge by focusing on plot and ideas and neglecting visuals.

This might seem contradictory coming from a person who is constantly demanding that movies actually be about something, but cinema -and animation more than any other medium- is built around the grammar of images. The cliché about animation is that it allows you to do anything, and the people over at Disney -who has historically led the charge in technology and innovation as far as animation style is concerned- seem to have lost interest in telling stories through images.

There isn’t a single visual moment or sequence in Zootopia that sticks with me as a feat of animation. If your knee-jerk reaction is to disagree with me, I urge you to think back and tell me what are the most memorable moments from Disney’s recent animated movies. For me, it’s the lanterns rising from the sea in Tangled, and Hiro trying to sneak Baymax around his house in Big Hero 6. These moments carry their power not in words, but in images. So does the moment when Maleficent turns into a dragon in Sleeping Beauty, when Belle and Beast share their first dance in Beauty and the Beast, and when Simba grows up walking on a log alongside Timon and Pumba in The Lion King. These are all movies that find power in their craft. They use animation not as an excuse, but as a means to tell their story.

Grade: 6 out of 10

Disney Canon: Big Hero 6 (2014)

Big Hero 6
Hiro’s robotic friend Baymax is the standout in the otherwise generic ‘Big Hero 6’.

Before I get into my review of Big Hero 6, I have the urgent need to tell you that Feast, the six-minute short that plays before the movie, about a dog’s relationship to food, is not only one of the most adorable things I’ve ever seen, but a pretty fantastic piece of short-form animation. Don’t except the best thing you’ve ever seen, but I’ll be struck by lightning if you aren’t delighted by this little gem. Anyway, on with the actual review…

It is abundantly clear, now more than ever, that the Walt Disney Company’s marketing has reached a level of perfection so astonishing, that nobody would think you are a crazy person if you truly believed that their primary goal is world domination. One of the reasons their marketing strategy is so effective, is because their products seem to be tailor-made for certain audiences. If you look at Walt Disney Animation Studios, their main animation division, for example, you will find that they have, for a long time, separated their productions into “boy movies”, and “girl movies”, taking into account -despite the fact that they always want to reach as wide an audience as possible- who their primary audience is.

Now, as the ubiquitous term “Disney Princess” would suggest, the Studio has been famously successful with their “girl movies”. So much so that most of the milestones in the Studio’s history have been movies with Princess protagonists: Their first ever feature-length production was Snow White and the Seven DwarfsIn the fifties, they regained their popularity and were saved from bankruptcy by Cinderella. After a decades-long lackluster period, the studio jumped into one of its most successful eras with The Little Mermaid. And if this weren’t enough, one only needs to look at the massive success of last year’s Frozen, which is now the highest-grossing movie in the Studio’s history. As far as “boy movies” are concerned,, well, that’s another story…

This is probably why, when the Disney conglomerate spent a small fortune to bring Marvel Comics into their corporate umbrella, the Animation Studio quickly searched Marvel’s library for a property that could be easily and effectively adapted into the mold of a Disney animated movie. The result is Big Hero 6, which not only fits perfectly into the “boy movie” category, but by being for all intents and purposes at least partially a Marvel product, comes with assurance that there is a way of successfully marketing it to little boys. So make no mistake. The Marvel logo may not appear anywhere during Big Hero 6, but no one will leave the audience not realizing that it is, for better and for worse, a Marvel movie through and through. Mostly for worse.

The relationship at the center of the movie is that of young boy-genius Hiro (Ryan Potter) and his equally smart older brother Tadashi (Daniel Henney), who live in the fictional city of San Fransokyo (a beautiful-looking mash-up of San Francisco and Tokyo). Hiro spends his hustling his way through illegal robot-fights. Tadashi, who sees the folly in throwing one’s life away in such a dubious pastime, helps Hiro catch the scientific bug by taking him to his university and showing him all the crazy cool stuff he and his peers spend their time inventing, like Tadashi’s biggest invention, a robotic nurse called Baymax (Scott Adsit). But everything takes a turn for the worse when Hiro’s biggest invention are stolen and used by a mysterious man in a Kabuki mask.

The relationship between the brothers make this feel a little bit like a male-oriented version of Frozen, but is more aptly compared to the caring bond between the sisters in Lilo & StitchIt’s not the most original dynamic, but it does a very interesting and valuable thing in that it positions science and innovation as the coolest thing you could do with your life. It’s a movie about celebrating intelligence, which is always nice. Sadly, this doesn’t last very long, since the latter part of the film -when this group of geniuses decides to become superheroes- turns into your typically uninspired Marvel movie, complete with unmemorable villain and a third-act inter-dimensional portal that threatens to destroy a city. The movie is basically a preschool version of The Avengers, and pretty uninspired on most fronts.

The big exception to the flatness comes in the character of Baymax, whose design as a non-threatening robotic balloon makes him one of the most memorable animated characters of the past few years. He is so enjoyable precisely because his charm is not only in what he says (he is very funny), but in the way he looks and moves. On this front, the animators do a fantastic job, and the middle section of the film, in which Hiro and Baymax start going on adventures together, is by far the most entertaining and exciting. The job the animators do with him is so good that it comes close to making up for the rest of the movie, which isn’t exactly bad, but just bland… At least Feast is pretty awesome.

Grade: out of 10

Top Ten: Disney Sidekicks

Ok, everybody, this is it. The last list, and the last Disney Canon-related article I’ll be writing for a long time. Well, at least until the release of Big Hero 6 later this year. As for this final list, it was inspired by a rather fantastic article in the New York Times about a couple of parents reaching out to their autistic son through Disney movies. If you haven’t read the article, you can click here. It’s a little long, but worth the read. Anyway, one of the important “plot points” in the article involves Disney sidekicks, so I decided to pay tribute to them with a list. After all, they are more often than not the characters we end up loving the most, and definitely the ones I liked best as a kid. Without further ado, the ten best Disney Sidekicks…

Genie10. The Genie
From Aladdin
Sidekick to: Aladdin, young, handsome vagabond, and diamond in the rough.
So many people have retroactively hated on the Genie for a) being voiced by Robin Williams, whose career and  comedy, granted, hasn’t aged as well as one would’ve hoped, and b) because it opened the door to hundreds of horrible celebrity voice work. I would answer both points by saying that 1) Robin Williams was at the absolute top of his comedic game when he voiced the Genie and 2) all those celebrity voices can be annoying, but they can also turn out gems such as Ellen DeGeneres’s work in Finding Nemo. Anyway, the Genie is hilarious, and not only thanks to Williams’s performance, but to the fantastic work the animators (led by Eric Goldberg) did translating his comedy into the character’s visual language.

Dopey9. Dopey
From Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs
Sidekick to: Snow White, but also to the dwarfs, who are sidekicks themselves. Pretty meta, huh?
Dopey is the most noticeable and memorable of the seven dwarfs because how different he is to the rest. For starters, he doesn’t have beard, and second, he doesn’t talk (something that is often a virtue in Disney characters). He also seems to have been designed to be the silliest and funniest of the dwarfs, and he does deliver some of the film’s most charming laughs. And as fantastic as he is, his inclusion in the list must have an asterisk next to it, for he was chosen for his awesomeness, but also as a representative of the seven dwarfs, who with their particular and silly personalities, remain the rosetta stone for all Disney Sidekicks. Doc, Happy, Bashful, Sneezy, Sleepy, and especially Grumpy, all have their great moments and their honorary places on this list.

Olaf8. Olaf
From Frozen
Sidekick to: naive Princess Anna as she tries to save her sister and learns what true love is.
Olaf will probably go down in history as one of the most delightful surprises of my history of watching movies. If there was something that was keeping me from being too excited about Frozen before it came out (and I was pretty excited), was the ubiquitous presence of this snowman character in all the marketing material. He seemed like one of those annoying talking sidekicks, the kind that is usually voiced by Eddie Murphy, that always threaten to ruin a perfeclty good movie. The surprise, then, was how endearing and lovable a character was created thanks to actor Josh Gad and the rest of the creative team.

Thumper7. Thumper
From Bambi
Sidekick to: Bambi, young deer and future king of the forest.
I understand that Bambi is beloved and regarded as a classic and a Disney masterpiece, and while it is an absolutely beautiful film to look at, there is something that doesn’t quite click with me. That being said, if there is something that Bambi excels at, it’s cuteness, and none of the characters in the film (or possibly in any film ever made) are nearly as cute as Thumper, Bambi’s mischievous rabbit sidekick.

Eeyore6. Eeyore
From The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh and Winnie the Pooh
Sidekick to: Mostly Pooh, but also Tigger, or any character that needs a sidekick, really.
This is where the difference between a sidekick and a supporting character comes in. Eeyore definitely strands the line between the two. He isn’t either tagging along on a hero’s quest, or constantly hanging out and orbiting a specific character, which are the two main characteristics of a Disney Sidekick. He is, however, undoubtedly a supporting character. We only get small doses of his sad resignation, but they are pure gold, and work even better when standing in contrast to the much more lively residents of the hundred acre woods, as when he is paired up with his spiritual opposite, Tigger, in Winnie the Pooh. 

5Sir HissSir Hiss 
From Robin Hood
Sidekick to: Prince John, ridiculously unqualified British Monarch.
Even though I recognize the movies’s many weaknesses, I have a huge soft-spot for Robin Hood. There are, however, things that are unquestionably great about it, and one such thing is Sir Hiss. In appearance, he is basically a rehash of Kaa from The Jungle Book, but in personality, he is fantastic comic relief. Terry-Thomas’s performance is perfect at capturing how terrible it must be to be as intelligent as Hiss, and yet, not being listened by anyone and being constantly bullied by Prince John. Sir Hiss is such a kiss-ass that he definitely deserves what’s coming to him. I’m just grateful he exists.    

Kronk4. Kronk
From The Emperor’s New Groove
Sidekick to: Yzma, evil and decrepit sorceress
How does Kronk get so high on the list? Well, he is the funniest character in what is probably Disney’s funniest movie. And he is awesome. I think we can all agree that actor Patrick Warburton was born to voice animated characters, and he has never been better. What is so perfect about Kronk is that despite being incredibly dim-witted, and working for the movie’s villain, he is a good-natured guy. Somehow he is conflicted about doing bad stuff, but not about working for an ageless, evil, sorceress. Anyway, he is funny, and that always wins you points as far as I’m concerned.

Sebastian3. Sebastian
From The Little Mermaid
Sidekick to: Ariel, mermaid princess and human enthusiastic
I hear some people have problems with the Jamaican accent, but they’re idiots. Sebastian has an accent, but he isn’t a caricature of anything that I can think so. Unless you think making a character with a Jamaican accent a good musician is insensitive. Hell, not even a good musician, but a great one! I can’t think of any character in the Disney Canon who has a better musical record than Sebastian. He is the main voice in The Little Mermaid’s most memorable numbers: the show-stopping “Under the Sea”, and the utterly fantastic “Kiss the Girl”. He is also part of “Les Poissons”, which while not a great song, is a pretty funny sequence.

Tinkerbell2. Tinker Bell
From Peter Pan
Sidekick to: the boy who wouldn’t grow up
In terms of personality, Tinker Bell is far from a feminist hero. The whole thing about fairies only being able to feel one emotion at the time, and her murderous infatuation with Peter raise a few eyebrows. However, as animated by master Marc Davis, Tinker Bell is one of the most graceful characters in all of the Disney Canon. And I still find her to be the best realized, most memorable, and definitely the most fun character in Peter Pan. 

Jiminy Cricket1. Jiminy Cricket
From Pinocchio
Sidekick to: The title puppet-turned-animated-puppet-turned-real-boy
Jiminy Cricket tops the list because his whole existence is a point of genius. In the original Pinocchio stories, the cricket is quickly smashed by the wooden boy moments after being appointed as his conscience. Disney, however, decided to expand his role, turning him into one of the most memorable characters in the whole Canon. He is supposed to be the moral center, and the voice of reason for the little puppet who wishes to be a real boy, but his trully appealing quality is that he is really not fit for the task. He is fantastic because he is not a wise-ass constantly telling the main character what he should and shouldn’t be doing. His being responsible for this little boy provides him with a journey of his own, and something to fight for.

Top Ten: Disney Princesses

Another week, another Disney list (only one more to go!). This time, it’s my turn to look at some of the most iconic (and the most aggresively marketed) of Disney characters: the Disney Princesses. The title of this post is misleading, because I decided that, since there are only twelve “official” Disney Princesses in the Canon, it wouldn’t make sense to make a top ten, so this is a ranking of the twelve, again, “official” Disney Princesses in the Disney Canon. Which sparks the question: what exactly is an “official” Princess? Funny you should ask, because it seems like the classification is highly arbitrary. It apparently doesn’t have anything to do on whether or not you are a Princess, or what kind of movie you appear in. It has, however, all to do with marketing. For example, Merida, from Brave, is considered a Disney Princess despite her movie not being in the Disney Canon (because it is a Pixar movie).

Meerida is actually an easy case. Consider how characters like Eilonwy (from The Black Cauldron) and Kida (from Atlantis: The Lost Empireare not “official” despite unambiguously being Princesses. It doesn’t stop there, since I’m not sure that Mulan and Pocahontas (who are considered “official”) are actually Princesses. I guess you could call the daughter of the leader of the Powhatan tribe a princess, but Mulan, who is not royalty, and probably ends up marrying a high-ranking officer, but not a nobleman, is definitely not a princess. Anyway, this is all stupid because, like I said, the only factor in determining who is and isn’t an “official” Disney P rincess is marketing value. You can only join the club if you are going to sell a lot of dolls. For this list, I considered the “official” Princesses that appear in Canon movies (so no Merida, and no characters that have, for one reason or another, been deemed “unmarketable”).

Oh, and just as a reminder, this is obviously completely subjective, and based solely on the way the character is written, designed, and animated. I am not trying to make any kind of feminist statement of anything simply because I’m not in the mood to open that can of worms.

sleepingbeautyprincess12. Princess Aurora (from Sleeping Beauty)
On the one hand, Sleeping Beauty is a strong candidate for being the most visually outstanding movie in the Disney Canon. Every element of its design is as eye-popping as animation could get back in 1959, and it holds up terrifically well. On the other hand, though, Princess Aurora, or Briar Rose, as she is referred to for the most part of the movie, is not a very exciting or interesting character. She may have the title role, but she isn’t in very much of the movie. She basically sings in the woods for a little while and then spends the rest of the movie asleep, waiting to be rescued by Prince Philip. Maybe if she had a little more to do she would be higher on this list, but as it stands, she gets last place almost by default.

elsaprincess11. Princess Elsa (from Frozen)
Sure, she has her show-stopping moment when she gets to sing “Let It Go”, but you can only get so far in my estimation when you are a character that spends most of the movie moping around. By the end of her musical number, Elsa supposedly emerges as a self-assured, powerful ice sorceress, but a few scenes later she goes back to being a scared, tormented teenager. Such a characterization might be what the movie needs, but it also makes her a rather dull character to watch. If there ever is a Frozen 2 (and I hope to God there isn’t), we better get a confident Elsa that uses her powers as often and spectacularly as she pleases.

tianaprincess10. Tiana (from The Princess and the Frog)
I feel like this is awfully low for a character as ambitious and well-intentioned as Tiana. Let’s forget about the whole “first African American” Princess for a moment, the really great thing about Tiana as a character is that she is a hard-working, determined, strong woman. She knows what she wants, and she is going to get it. That is an amazing message for little girls if there ever was one, which makes it all the more frustrating when the movie ends up giving the message that working hard isn’t going to help you achieve your dream as much as wishing on a star and falling in love with a womanizing Prince is. Anyway, Tiana could have won extra points for how beautifully animated she is, but it doesn’t help that she spends most of the movie as a frog that is rather boringly designed.

snowwhiteprincess9. Snow White (from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs)
As far as personality goes, Snow White is as blank a slate as you can get. She does, however, know how to croon a thirties standard, and how to melodically persuade woodland critters to help her clean up the dwarfs’ house. I guess she does express a certain level of strong personality when she demands the dwarfs wash their hands before eating dinner, but yeah, that is definitely not much. Still, the appeal of Snow White is the same as the appeal of the movie she appears in: she is a marvel of the craft, a historical milestone in the art of animation, and as fantastically and carefully animated a character as there ever was in the medium. I might not want to have a conversation with Snow, but I could watch her sing and clean that house forever. I’m sorry if that sounded uncomfortably sexist. You know I didn’t mean it that way.

jasmineprincess8. Princess Jasmine (from Aladdin)
I guess Jasmine is not a very memorable character, because I can’t really remember all that much about her or her personality. I guess this is a good place for her on the list, because while I don’t have any big problems with her, I can’t find any outstanding qualities in her either. I guess it is somewhat empowering that she doesn’t want to be married to some random prince she has never met, but she is also a little too rude and uncooperative with the fact that her being married is an important political move for her country. You also have to be a little dumb to not realize Aladdin and Prince Ali are the same person, especially since he is apparently the only guy in the whole kingdom that doesn’t look like a cartoonish buffoon.

annaprincess7. Anna (from Frozen)
There is no denying that she is ridiculously naive, but she is also determined to do something! And if I’m being honest, I find her unbearably adorable. And so enthusiastic! She also has her fair amount of pathos, and I can’t help but feel for the whole loneliness thing she experiences during “Do You Want to Build a Snowman?”. Also, she is clumsy! How adorable is that? Sorry, is that a non-feminist thing to say? See, I should never have made this list, I feel so uncomfortable! Anyway, yes, she might be a little too similar to Rapunzel, but I do still find her more fun and exciting than her sister.

cinderellaprincess6. Cinderella (from Cinderella)
I feel like there is this perception that Cinderella is the most passive and boring of all Disney Princesses, and while she is definitely a product of her time, she has some very interesting qualities to herself. I said so when I wrote about the movie, but I continue to be fascinated with the psychological aspects and relationships featured in Cinderella. If you look at the movie, Cinderella isn’t as much a helpless young woman as she is a motherly figure, which is logical considering how the whole theme of the movie seems to be motherhood. She represents the caring mother as opposed to Lady Tremaine’s evil ways. It makes sense that a family movie released in 1950 would be concerned with showing the virtues of being a good mother, but it doesn’t mean that Cinderella isn’t an interesting character.

pocahontasprincess5. Pocahontas (from Pocahontas)
There are many things wrong with Pocahontas, but its depiction of the title character is not one of them. First of all, Pocahontas is simply one of the most beautifully animated characters in the story of the medium. I don’t care what your computers are capable of doing, they will never make a character move as gracefully as her. And on the other hand, while there is some “noble savagery” going on, she is one strong woman. She isn’t afraid to tell John Smith that he is an idiot, she isn’t afraid of standing up to her father, and most importantly, at the end she decides to stay with her tribe instead of following John Smith back to England.Well, at least until that horrible straight-to-video sequel that we all pretend never happened.

rapunzelprinces4. Rapunzel (from Tangled)
I continue to be delighted and fascinated by the character of Rapunzel (and with Tangled as a whole). First of all, she is so freakingly delightful, perhaps the most charismatic and lively of all the Princesses on this list. She is also, however, the most realistic as far as depictions of what an actual teenaged girl is like. The level of psychology implied in Rapunzel’s story and personality is rather outstanding. I can’t think of a more relevant way in which you could depict the story of a girl who grows up locked up in a tower not knowing the person she thinks is her mother is actually her captor.

arielprincess3. Ariel (from The Little Mermaid)
“I wanna be where the people are/I wanna see, wanna see them dancing” I could just quote the rest of “Part of That World” and call it a day, but instead I’ll say this. In these tumultuous times in which so many people are fighting for the civil rights of the LGTB community, I think it’s time that we embrace Ariel as the transgender icon that she should have become by now, because if the story of a mermaid who becomes a human isn’t an allegory for sexual identity, I don’t know what it is.

mulanprincess

2. Mulan (from Mulan)
One of my big takeaways from doing this whole Disney Canon project, was that Mulan is a freaking amazing movie, and not in small part because it at has a freaking amazing heroine at its center. Say what you will about any of the other Disney Princesses, but none of them started the movie as a clumsy teenager, worked their assess off training, and ended up saving all of China from being conquered by an evil warlord. Her character arc is so clear and well defined that she might very well be the best role model of all the Disney Princesses.

belleprincess1. Belle (from Beauty and the Beast)
Belle seems very much like the first Disney Princess for which trying to give her a more feminist personality was a major concern. Thankfully, though, her role as a strong female goes beyond the fact that she reads books (a characteristic that is, nevertheless, a very nice touch). The truth is that she shows a level of agency that was unprecedented in Disney movies at the time, and one that is arguably still yet to be surpassed. Also, because the filmmakers working on this film ended up making one of the best animated films of all time, her character arc is still the best example of reconciling having a female lead that is strongly independent and falls in love at the same time. It might be depressing, but movies are still not great at balancing something that is as common in real life as that.